Work Bitch

I find Britney Spears endlessly fascinating. Not musically, of course – I rarely listen to her these days – but for what she represents in modern pop (and attitudes towards it). When she was added to the panel of American X Factor I wrote about what a perfect fit it was, both pushing a “dead-eyed idea of pop as something which, at its best, sells.” On Britney herself, I wrote that:

Britney as a brand & persona long ago eclipsed Britney as a person. It’s almost irrelevant to ponder Britney as an artist because she is the ultimate blank canvas, reflecting everything and nothing, at once devoid of personality and containing everyone’s personalities. She may still put out albums but really, at this stage, no-one would bat an eyelid if she was used to advertise hedge funds.

Now this doesn’t mean that Britney can’t be involved in great pop. The brilliance of Blackout was (and remains) that it got the point (or more apropos, the lack of one) of Britney:

In that regard Blackout is also a concept album – one about modern fame and modern pop music. Its power rests almost entirely on the persona of ‘Britney Spears’, not the person. The associations of that persona feed into the music and lend it an uncomfortable power – we know that as a person she is damaged and unhappy, yet as a popstar she is all-consuming. This subverts a dominant notion in modern pop – namely that the context is irrelevant and all that matters is whether a song is any good or not. We are under no illusion that Britney Spears had anything to do with most of this record – but the album confronts that head on and makes it into a dazzling virtue. As with Erotica, there is nothing seductive about Blackout – instead its pleasures lie in the confounding of expectations and the contorting of Britney’s image. “You think Britney and her music are manufactured? Fuck you. How about this?”

Post-Blackout, of course, there’s been a long attempt at normalising Britney’s image once more. X Factor was the apex of this, sending Britney into people’s homes every week in an acknowledgement that personality (the appearance of being ‘approachable’ and ‘down to earth’) is what really matters in modern pop. In truth, she didn’t come across as any less dead-eyed and lost. The crucial thing, however, is that she wasn’t unavoidably absurd. She remained inoffensive and blank – as such, people could keep on projecting whatever they wanted onto her. In a sense it’s the same projection which David Bowie used to such great effect on The Next Day, albeit inverted. Bowie had fun with it, documenting in a very real sense his ‘fall’ from mythical vacuum to a real, functioning artist again. He stamped his authority onto the void which he had become in the same way that Blackout did for Britney. Since then, however, Britney and everyone around her (you really don’t get the sense she cares much about any of this) have done their best to avoid it and pretend it’s business as usual (with the odd crack in the facade). So we had Femme Fatale, an album which sounded thoroughly modern and overwhelmingly anodyne – whatever the quality of the songs, they could have been anyone for the most part. By this stage, however, that’s more than enough. No-one expects much of Britney other than to leave them be to project whatever they like onto her. In this process rather generic material is elevated as it acts as a reservoir for the listeners, who feel that in Britney’s blankness they recognise the ultimate ‘pop personality’. How could they not think this – they’re really only recognising themselves.

‘Work Bitch’ is business as usual. It really is Scream and Shout part 2, from the generic EDM beats to the faux-British accent and it could easily be one of those one-hit wonder dance tracks which feature anonymous women both singing and being objectified to comedic levels in the video. It’s one stamp of personality comes from its appropriation of the language of (black) drag culture, reflecting the same appropriation by Western white gay men who exchange lines from Ru Paul’s Drag Race in facile approximation of an ‘edgier’ identity. For her part, Britney keeps out of the way: as with S&S there is literally nothing about the song which is unique to her aside from the appeal to her mythology (S&S very deliberately so, with the ‘Britney bitch!’ line) which these days is synonymous with her blankness. Here, we’re long past any notion of pop as something which can be sublime and cathartic; instead it’s something functional which makes no demands and serves primarily to validate the listener. Perhaps in that frame of reference this is a brilliant Britney Spears single. Unfortunately, a brilliant Britney Spears single in 2013 is one which displays little more than contempt for pop music as an art form which can contain its own character and integrity, rather than subsuming itself in the listener’s ego.

The X Factor: Beneath Contempt

I wrote last year about X Factor and its ‘contempt for pop music’. What I perhaps underestimated was its contempt for its own viewers. As I previously noted, it’s now at the stage where I feel grubby when I watch it. My fiance, on the other hand, has almost no interest in pop music and so is an avid viewer. He never listens to any of the music which results from the show. Really, approaching it as a car-crash reality show is the only way to possibly derive any enjoyment from it. Living with a ‘fan’ I long ago realised that it’s futile to attempt to avoid it entirely and so on Saturday I found myself in G-A-Y with a few friends. Low-level drunkenness makes everything a little bit better, right?

The audition above was one of the centrepieces of the opening episode and it perfectly encapsulates everything that is wrong with the show. It has been presented in a predictably sensationalist manner and was heavily trailed both before the show and during it. It ostensibly shows a deluded, mediocre girl with an attitude problem going postal when she is turned down by the judges. 

What is hard to swallow is how disingenuous it is on pretty much every level. The girl in question, Zoe Alexander, has claimed that the producers head-hunted her from Youtube videos and invited her in to audition. They urged her to play up the P!nk persona and to perform a P!nk song against her better judgement. It’s even been claimed that they all but guaranteed her a slot on the live shows, a claim which has cropped up with monotonous regularity over the years. It would be easy to dismiss all this face-saving lies but if you’ve taken even a cursory interest in the show beyond the PR gloss, it’s difficult not to take the claims at face value.

It certainly gives the video a grim context. Zoe’s face when the judges are telling her ‘no’ suggests utter disbelief – not, as we are encouraged to believe, because she is completely insane, but because she’s already been told that she’ll go through. To make matters worse the judges instantly misrepresent her claim of being told to sing P!nk. Anyone with half a brain (even these four) would know that she means the producers of the show. I have no doubt whatsoever that Tulisa and co immediately understood this – yet they deny that ‘they’, meaning the four of them, said any such thing and deliberately seek to humiliate her. Then we have the farce of Tulisa demanding that she be kept on stage, as if there is any chance in hell that a contestant would be able to assault her. Zoe’s response is a lot more understandable if you view it not as the result of a grossly-inflated self-belief but rather as someone realising that she has been lied to and humiliated in the name of ‘entertainment’.

It was all horrifically contrived and fake. The problem is that by this stage, everyone knows this. The judges know what was going on, the tabloids know what’s going on and yes, we the viewer knows what’s going on. However in order to avoid facing the unpleasant fact that we’re witnessing the deliberate and calculated humiliation of a girl whose main crime is shocking naivety, we must all pretend that what we’ve seen is something different. We must continue to buy into the myth that it’s about the singing voice, even knowing that people with far worse voices than Zoe have previously made it to the finals (and were put through on Saturday, even). The reality is that some contestants are set up to fail before they’re even on the stage while others are deemed to be good ‘fits’ for the well-established characters which populate the live shows. It’s tired – and so are we.

Happily, the overwhelming response I’ve heard from people re: Zoe’s audition has been sympathy and a belief that she was ‘set up’. Viewing figures are massively down. It seems that the viewers aren’t as cruel and devoid of empathy as the producers had hoped. Yes, I long ago realised it was futile to try and avoid X Factor completely – but by God, this year I intend to try. It’s time this cruel spectacle, which only the most deluded could possibly think was about pop music, was consigned to history.

Cheryl Cole: She’s Not About That

I’ve written before about how Cheryl Cole is basically a television personality who ‘sings’ and, with the promo for her new album kicking off, that is now clearer than ever. I want to take a few moments to look at what she says about certain attitudes towards pop music.

A couple of weeks ago she appeared on ‘The Voice’ and jumped around a lot while miming:

Sure, it takes some chutzpah to mime on a show called ‘The Voice’ but the response from her supporters (and supporters of a certain idea of pop) was instant and obvious – she’s not about singing live and all those ideas of ‘authenticity’ beloved of ‘music snobs’. She’s a vehicle for pop songs and her ‘talent’ is her charisma.

Now, let’s take that at face value. Let’s ignore the fact that the song she is a vehicle for is derivative pap which desperately wants to be ‘We Found Love’. Let’s even ignore the fact that the above argument was almost always followed up by ‘Anyway, she IS singing beneath a backing track!’ which rendered them utterly self-defeating. Let’s look at this instead:

Here, Cheryl is most definitely singing live. And it’s absolutely dreadful. The entire thing is a car crash – more than that, a motorway pile-up. Aside from sounding horrible, she seems utterly flat and blank, as if she feels completely exposed. There is no ‘charisma’ here. So no, Cheryl is most definitely not about singing. So why is she there, then? Because she’s here in her role as a personality. That woman from Girls Aloud whose husband cheated on her and who cried a lot on ‘The X Factor’. Her role is really no different from that of Miranda who introduced her – she’s a face that people recognise and generally like. Being presented as one of the nation’s favourite pop stars, then, confuses this and ultimately demeans pop.

Cheryl being of modest talents is absolutely fine when she’s part of the team that is Girls Aloud. I use ‘team’ in the widest sense as the song-writing and production of Xenomania are as much part of Girls Aloud as the five women are. This is a singular vision – an often daring, exciting one which five women of varying talent present magnificently. It is evidently irrelevant if they write their music, just as it was irrelevant that The Supremes performed songs written within the Motown factory. Everyone involved has their role and it just works.

As a solo artist, Cheryl is front and centre and her shortcomings are woefully obvious. She is a dreadful singer and even on record her voice isn’t unique enough to be instantly identifiable (unlike, say, Diana Ross). The songs she’s performing are brought to her and intended to be generic enough that they could be performed by a plethora of interchangeable pop stars. She has absolutely nothing to say (even back in the infamous Times interview where Nicola Roberts expresses her reactionary right-wing views, Cheryl is clearly too media-savvy to say anything beyond throw some tidbits about her celebrity partner and celebrity spats) yet aims for a ‘Northern lass done good’ persona which prevents her becoming a fascinating vacuum like Britney. 

Yet aforementioned personality, combined with a classical beauty, was formed in front of millions and has made her a mainstay of the gossip magazines. Cheryl Cole is comparable to the stars of ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and the responses to both are similar – they are working-class folk ‘done good’, achieving a strange celebrity where viewers/readers feel they know them and what they actually do is secondary. It’s not difficult to imagine Cheryl presenting shows on ITV2 a la Mark Wright – the only difference is that she has come from a pop band. So that’s where  Cheryl the personality goes. The music is completely subservient to the brand that is ‘Cheryl’; at times, in fact, it seems completely irrelevant (as I’ve noted before, Cheryl’s miming on ‘X Factor’ demonstrated astounding contempt for the contestants whose singing she was judging). It’s pop as the path-of-least-resistance, ‘will this do?’ songs which are intended to do nothing more than sell. Any concept of pop as an art form or as a performer and song as a skillful, deliberate match capable of something transcendent is absent. Cheryl is the product to be sold and, as with Peter Andre, pop is merely part of the whole brand. She is literally a step above having a cd player placed on a stage and someone pressing ‘play’. Pop done well is an art and art necessarily involves human creativity – if all we cared about was whether a song was ‘catchy’ or not, we could literally listen to the product of a computer which had been programmed with algorithms for countless pop hits. Perhaps it would be catchy – it certainly wouldn’t have any soul. That is the logical conclusion of the argument that it is irrelevant what Cheryl does. The funny thing is, plenty of people have brand loyalty to inanimate objects and it’s easy to imagine some dystopian future where people bicker over whether equivalents of Apple or Microsoft produce the best pop songs.

Really, when people justify Cheryl’s lack of involvement – in every possible sense –  in her own pop music by saying that it’s not what she’s about, they are more right than they know. She’s not about pop; certainly not about music. She’s about fame-as-product. I think pop music deserves better.

This is of note purely for this:

It’s the erosion of true character – especially vocal character – in favour of spurious “personality” that may be talent-show telly’s most damaging effect on pop.

Yes yes and yes. I said to the MANMYTHLEGEND Wotyougot.com the other day that, the way pop is these days, artists like Madonna and Prince would never become hugely popular because they never had ‘reality show’ personalities. Witness the hysterically overblown response to Lady Gaga hugging some reality show contestant she had met (at best) hours before. Once we revelled in our pop stars being slightly alien creatures, now we fawn over their insincere interactions with ‘the plebs’.

X Factor and its ilk are hugely depressing circles that most people never seem to cotton onto. The contestents in the shows have to fit into very defined and digestible boxes. Anyone stepping outwith these boxes is completely crucified. People with passable-to-very good voices and inoffensive personalities – Olly Murrs, Rebecca Ferguson, Marcus whateverhissurname is, Little Mix – are lauded out of all proportion to their abilities. Yet every year the same complaints will be made that most of the contestants are boring, as if the above response is disconnected and of no relevance.

Being old enough to have been around when X Factor began, I remember distinctly that it started as a response to ‘Pop Idol’ being a ‘singing competition’. In interviews Simon Cowell would mention people like Madonna and David Bowie as artists who would never do well on a ‘Pop Idol’ format. That’s where the name came from – the idea was that they would find pop stars with ‘the x factor’ – that indefinable quality that makes a technically mediocre singer like Madonna one of the greatest pop stars in history above hundreds of accomplished wailers. This purpose was quickly forgotten and now I hear people who work for record labels praising the fact that people like Marcus and Little Mix are ‘blank slates’ waiting on managers, producers and songwriters to do whatever they want with. Someone with a strong sense of their artistic identity such as Matt Cardle or Misha B (whether you like their music or not) finds that it counts against them. ‘Pop music’ becomes about what sells, and what sells is a chirpy personality saying inoffensive things and singing catchy songs which fall into an ever diminishing range (electro-pop, sub-Winehouse r&b, MOR balladeering).

Of course, it’s hugely relevant that the vast majority of people who watch and vote for these shows are not big music listeners, if they are music listeners at all. There is no sense of pop music as something that can be profound, something that has real value. It is treated as plastic entertainment, a degrading approach which would be pounced upon were it to be verbalised. Indeed, I gathered from a ferocious response on Twitter that one of the contestants on X Factor last week said that they didn’t like pop music. The people treating such a statement with scorn would do well to think about what ‘respect’ X Factor actually has for pop music in the first place. It has none.

Arts & Ents | Music | Reviews Album: Olly Murs, In Case You Didn’t Know

Impossible Dreams

Last weekend I had a chat with a friend about growing up. Specifically about the moment when you accept that, in all likelihood, your life is going to be pretty average. You’re not going to be famous. You’re not going to hugely wealthy. You’ll make no more or less contribution to the wider world than countless other people. You’ll be one life amongst billions, forgotten in a few generations.

For some, it’s quite a big deal having this realisation. If you’ve somehow been convinced for much of your life that you’re going to be famous and/or wildly successful and/or will change the world, it could be a huge blow to your whole identity to face up to a rather more obscure and low-key life. That’s a very obvious example and it could (probably will?) be a lot more subtle than that. You could have spent decades chasing status amongst and the approval of your peers only to realise that this is always going to be just ahead of you, just beyond your grasp. We all want to feel important, after all. 

During this chat I mentioned a very interesting article which I read a couple of weeks ago. Its basic point (or at least what I took from it) was that only two or three generations ago, the problem with the class system was that it made most dreams seem out of reach for the vast majority of people. Yet, it argued, what was now the case was that the class system had adapted to present different dreams as being within the reach of everybody. Dreams which didn’t threaten the system, dreams which didn’t actually further social mobility in any meaningful way. ‘The Apprentice’, ‘The X Factor’, ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and countless other reality shows present images of ‘betterment’ which don’t rely on self-improvement, education and personal toil (personal as in not done for the benefit of your peers). Instead they push ‘being yourself’, even if the ‘yourself’ in question does not possess any particularly admirable qualities or character. They push a sense that the dreams they dangle could happen to anyone within a matter of weeks, if you just have the right temperament and are ‘entertaining’ enough. They push entitlement, competition and the idea that other people are obstacles or tools on your way to success – no more, no less. The qualities they elevate and enforce are a neoliberal dream of individualism and solipsism – you can make it if you just try hard enough, that’s the only force that matters and any curiosity about the wider world is foolish. Do not question how power operates. Do not question what you are told is ‘natural’. Do not question what is ‘accepted’.

I thought of all this when I saw that Vice Magazine thing about Dalston. However caricatured the characters in it were, they merely represented a wider attitude which Vice Magazine is very much a part of. This is the fetishism of ‘creativity’. In common with the above shows, stemming from the same place as them (and now reinforced by them) they present creativity as an almost supernatural quality which is possessed by a blessed view and exists in a way which can be easily seen and understood by the mere mortals around them. This is the more mundane yet ingenious version of the non-threatening ‘dream’ that is dangled in front of us. It is perhaps even more mundane than the dream of chasing wealth because at least, in the unlikely event that you become wealthy, you become a powerful player in the system (albeit one unlikely to wish to change it). ‘Success’ in being ‘a creative’ tends to be measured in a far more limited and localised way. So people scramble to be photographers, to be writers, to be actors, to be film makers, to be artists, to be creatives and so many of them don’t really have any idea why just as, 20 years ago, so many would chase money just because it was the done thing. The idea that creativity resides in every single person, that creativity can be an intensely private thing and still have value, the idea that self-improvement is perhaps the most powerful form of creativity possible – this has all been lost.

This isn’t to argue that people shouldn’t chase dreams, not at all. In growing up, however, there is huge value to be found in questioning the dreams which hang heavily in the air; value to be found in thinking about what is truly valuable both in terms of our own lives and in how we perceive others. Even if you are pursuing something that you really love, there is value and enormous freedom to be found in accepting (if indeed you must) that you are not going to be a ‘success’ at it in terms of how most judge success. Whether you are famous/wealthy/renowned or otherwise, your life is creative and your life can always be a success.

One of the people who inspired the conversation I mentioned at the start is indeed chasing one of those traditional dreams. But they’re getting older now. They have a family and the responsibilities that come with that. The ‘X Factor’ interpretation of this would be that, even if the dream has to be put on hold because of these responsibilities, you should keep chasing it and never give up. I think the grown up (and only possible happy) interpretation of that is to think how fortunate your life is that you can do something you love and have people who love you, even if you have to balance it with some things you have to do which you don’t enjoy as much as the other stuff but do nonetheless because of dignity, love, pride and a desire to always keep trying to do better. Isn’t that creative? Isn’t that, ultimately, a success?

Another article about the lack of overt political messages, or even a political context, in today’s popular music (this time from an American perspective). Yesterday I mentioned Marilyn Manson’s statement that he ‘preferred’ Republican Presidents as people raged against them and aspects of that sentiment are echoed here by Dorian Lynskey. I wasn’t referring to music when I mentioned it but rather the protest that has been, if not exactly sweeping, then massively increasing across the UK in the past year. It’s difficult not to wonder if it would be happening if Labour had regained power and implemented a cuts programme – not because the action is unjustified but because a right-wing ‘centre-left’ party can get away with things that their explicitly right-wing counterparts would find much more difficult (the introduction of tuition fees and the increasing marketisation of the NHS being perfect examples.) So yes, it would make sense that Obama being in the White House would stifle the tendency of musicians to speak out. That doesn’t explain the equal lack of activity in the UK, where we have an aggressively right-wing government facing a weak opposition party.

The effects of the media and technology could be investigated and debated for years to come (I’ve long said that we will have no idea how much technology is changing us in very fundamental ways until long after it has already happened, if we realise at all) but it does sadly seem to have become a truism that a ‘political’ musician is an absurd notion worthy of ridicule. It’s as if our collective judgement of popular music has regressed to the days before anyone took it seriously as an artform and now all people want from it is dancing and synthetic, obstentatious emotion. This has gone hand in hand with the acceleration of the ‘Idol’-isation of music. On these ‘reality’ shows you progress if you fit into an easily digested box, don’t stray from it, keep smiling and do what you’re told. If you can have a ‘journey’ which involves you having trite realisations about your self-worth and crying, all the better. If you actually love music, have a firm idea of what you want to be and are not afraid to speak about it, you’re doomed. Our celebration of blankess and conformity reaches ever more perverse heights and where does an opinionated, politically aware pop star fit into that? They’d do better to shut up and sing another song about clubbing.

At the Protests, the Message Lacks a Melody

The ‘Golden Snitch’ argument: ‘snobbery’ and the working-class

Last night I finally got around to reading this piece on ‘scripted reality shows’ and my heart sank when, almost inevitably, Paul Flynn’s defence of them began with:

You can sniff the snobbery at 20 paces here. Yes, of course there are lovely middle-class people in Newcastle who have dinner parties discussing their trips to exhibits at the Sage and Baltic, but they’d make deathly dull TV and wouldn’t want to be on it, anyway.

and adding:

Regional types exist on TV because they exist in life.

and celebrating that:

In the unforgiving, compelling frames of reality TV, people really are, as Dave Gahan once sang, just people.

The instant recourse to ‘snobbery’ and class as a defence of the shows is something I have heard time and time again, despite being one that falls apart even in the hands of its user. Flynn acknowledges that Made In Chelsea is about ‘Posh West Londoners’. Is Flynn arguing that these shows are only hated by ‘middle-class’ people with a snobbery about both working-class people and ‘posh’ people?! You would hope not, since such a position would be incoherent.

The bottom line of the argument is quite clear: these shows portray working-class people being working-class, and if you dislike them you are a class snob. It’s like some perverse rhetorical game of Quidditch with ‘working-class’ as the Golden Snitch – whomever manages to claim it most effectively instantly wins the argument (does referencing Quidditch make me a snob?!). It’s a pernicious tactic which is used in many different spheres of life. As the recent media brouhaha has neatly demonstrated once again, the tabloids excuse the nastier elements of what they do with an appeal to the ‘ordinary/working-class person’ who apparently wants to read everything they print. When Hugh Grant appeared on Question Time and eloquently demolished the morality of the tabloid media, he was asked ‘Who are you to tell ordinary people what to read?’ (Grant’s response of ‘Who is Murdoch to tell us who to vote for?’ was a brilliant reposte, quickly revealing that such demagogic arguments are invariably a smokescreen for the influence and interests of the powerful.) Again, the bottom line is clear: if you criticise the tabloids printing dubious stories about celebrity affairs etc, you are attacking the working-class and are a snob (and again, it’s not an argument which really holds together given the strong middle-class readership of papers like the News of the World).

It’s a frequent argument in politics too. Usually it is again used to mask and defend the interests of the powerful, even if well-intentioned. The current project of ‘Blue Labour’ is a perfect example. It summarises its appeal to the working-class as “faith, family and flag”, arguing that this community is fundamentally conservative and Labour should defend its interests and identity. I won’t write an essay on Blue Labour here but suffice to say that its appeal to working-class conservative is implicitly an appeal to a white working-class (though of late this has become rather explicit, with Glasman’s courting of the EDL and recent demand to stop immigration). The way it speaks about this community has the air of people who haven’t met a working-class person in decades telling everyone else what they think and relying on the Golden Snitch argument to undermine any and all criticism. No real evidence is offered for this working-class conservatism. The spectre of organisations like the BNP is wheeled out as justification, conveniently ignoring the fact that research suggests that there is no correlation between being working-class and supporting the BNP, and that it in fact it is the lower middle-class who are most represented in its supporters.

When did everyone become so scared of criticising anything that is perceived as working-class, to the extent that quite indefensible ideas go unchallenged for fear of being labelled a ‘snob’? Isn’t it more malign to argue that the vacant, self-obsessed characters (of all classes) typical of scripted reality represent the working-class and that any educated person attacking this is a snob? The implication here is that working-class people cannot be educated, eloquent and engaged without somehow being a class traitor. This is drivel. The implication with the tabloid argument is that you cannot be working-class and try to be moral and/or believe that much of the substance of tabloid ideology is debasing and damaging without being a class traitor. This is drivel. The implication of the Blue Labour argument is that you cannot be working-class and believe that racism and bigotry in working-class people is their own responsiblity, and inexcusable, without being a class traitor. This is drivel.

We should not be fighting to ‘level down’ by romanticising stupidity, bigotry and prurience as working-class ‘qualities’. They cut across class boundaries and they are open to criticism wherever they may be found. We also should not be fighting for a world where ‘working-class’ is romanticised to the point where everyone is scared to criticise anything which identifies with it – especially other working-class people, the vast majority of whom do not watch scripted reality shows, do not read the News of the World and do not vote for extremist parties.

I am unasamedly working-class, grew up in a working-class community and had (and continue to have) many working-class friends. I think education is a good thing. I think being engaged in the world around you is a good thing. I think believing racism and bigotry is wrong no matter where it is found is a good thing. Am I typical of the working-class? Maybe I am…some would say I’m not. Am I a snob? If you believe that, I think it says more about your own attitudes to class than anything else.